In a finding that should resonate strongly for Canadian decision-makers charged with meeting the country’s climate targets, new research reveals that the carbon footprint of a litre of synthetic crude extracted from tar sands/oil sands bitumen is more than 23% greater than previously estimated.
The elevated figure, reported by InsideClimate News, is based on an assessment conducted by the U.S. State Department in the course of its consideration of a still-pending application by Calgary’s Enbridge Inc. to expand its Alberta Clipper pipeline to deliver synthetic tar sands/oil sands crude to Wisconsin. It updates an earlier finding produced by the same agency in 2014, during its consideration of TransCanada Corporation’s Keystone XL pipeline.
That assessment, ICN recalls, determined that “compared to other sources of oil that American refineries might use, the tar sands would be about 17% more polluting on average.” The calculation contributed to then-President Barack Obama’s decision to reject the Keystone XL proposal, a decision recently reversed by his pro-fossil successor.
A more recent review of Enbridge’s proposed line, however, produced “a gloomier picture of emissions.”
Employing “the most up-to-date studies and tools, including a model known as GREET, developed by the federal Argonne National Laboratory, which calls it the ‘gold standard’ for this kind of calculation,” the latest assay found that on a comprehensive “well-to-wheels” basis, “tar sands crude would have a carbon footprint of 632 kilograms per barrel, compared to an average U.S. refinery mix of 521 kilograms per barrel of carbon dioxide emissions. The difference is 111 kilograms per barrel—21 percent dirtier, not 17 percent.”
The four percentage-point difference in the new calculation means the full carbon footprint of tar sands/oil sands production, distribution, and use is 23.5% heavier than previously thought.
Valero will soon have fifth refinery processing 100 percent North American crude
By Sergio Chapa, Sep 11, 2015, 6:44pm CDT
San Antonio-based Valero Energy Corp. is expected to have its fifth refinery capable of processing nothing but North American crude by the end of the year.
Valero (NYSE: VLO) revealed in an investors’ presentation released earlier this week that its Jean Gaulin Refinery in Quebec will be processing 100 percent North American crude oil by the end of the year.
Company figures show that the refinery was 100 percent dependent on foreign crude oil in first quarter 2013, but production from the tar sands region of Canada and the shale plays of the United States has dramatically changed the situation.
The Jean Gaulin Refinery is processing about 80 percent North American-sourced crude oil but will be at 100 percent once a project to modify the Enbridge Line 9B Pipeline is completed in the fourth quarter. The project will reverse the flow of the pipeline to enable oil from the tar sands region of Alberta to flow east to Valero’s refinery in Quebec.
Most refineries were built decades ago and were configured to process to Middle Eastern oil, but Valero spokesman Bill Day told the San Antonio Business Journal that the Jean Gaulin Refinery is lined up to be the fifth of the company’s refinery capable of processing 100 percent North American crude oil.
Day said Valero’s Ardmore, McKee, Memphis and Three Rivers refineries can already process 100 percent North American crude oil, while other plants are processing an increasing amount of North American crude.
The investors presentation shows that Valero is expanding its capacity to process a total of 185,000 barrels per day of light sweet crude from the Eagle Ford and other shale plays at the company’s McKee, Houston and Corpus Christi refineries in Texas.
Day said that the addition of the Keystone XL Pipeline would enable Valero to replace foreign heavy crude with heavy crude from Canada. He also noted that a proposed rail terminal at the company’s Benicia refinery in California, would enable Valero to offset foreign crude brought in by ship with North American crude brought in by rail.
Repost from OnEarth Magazine, Natural Resources Defense Council [Editor: Significant quote: “The Kalamazoo River still isn’t clean. Let’s not forget how much it cost to (not completely) clean the Kalamazoo. The current price tag is $1.21 billion (and rising), making it the most expensive onshore oil spill in U.S. history.” – RS]
Remember the Kalamazoo
Five years ago, a pipeline spilled a million gallons of tar sands crude into a Michigan river—and we’re still cleaning it up.
By Brian Palmer, July 22, 2015
Five years ago, in the middle of the night, an oil pipeline operated by Enbridge ruptured outside of Marshall, Michigan. It took more than 17 hours before the Canadian company finally cut off the flow, but by then, more than a million gallons of tar sands crude had oozed into Talmadge Creek. The oil quickly flowed into the Kalamazoo River, forcing dozens of families to evacuate their homes. Oil spills of that magnitude are always disastrous, but the Kalamazoo event was historically damaging.
The first challenge was the composition of the oil. Fresh tar sands crude looks more like dirt than conventional crude—it’s far too thick to travel through a pipeline.
To get this crumbly mess to flow, producers thin it out with the liquid constituents of natural gas. Diluted bitumen, or dilbit, as it’s called in the tar sands industry, is approximately three parts tar sands crude, one part natural gas liquids.
When dilbit gushed into Talmadge Creek in 2010, the mixture broke apart. The volatile natural gas liquids vaporized and wafted into the surrounding neighborhoods. The airborne chemicals were so difficult to find and eliminate that Enbridge decided it would be better to simply buy some of the homes that were evacuated, preventing the residents from ever returning.
The tar sands oil, which stayed in the water, presented an even bigger chemistry problem. Most forms of oil, including conventional crude, are less dense than water. That’s why oil makes such pretty colors when dropped into a rain puddle—it floats and plays tricks with the sunlight. Traditional oil spill cleanup technology relies heavily on this density relationship. Skimmers and vacuums remove it from the surface. Floating booms prevent surface-level oil from moving into environmentally sensitive areas.
Tar sands crude behaves differently. “Tar sands bitumen is a low-grade, heavy substance,” says Anthony Swift, director of NRDC’s Canada Project (disclosure). “Unlike conventional crude, when bitumen is released into a water body, it sinks.” (See “Sink or Skim,”onEarth’s infographic on why tar sands oil is more difficult to clean up than conventional crude.)
Put simply, the spilled dilbit traveled in every direction—into the air, with the current, to the bottom of the river—at the same time. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s indisputably naïve response reveals how little anyone knew about tar sands crude. The EPA demanded that Enbridge remove the oil from wetlands surrounding the pipe by August 27, a little more than one month after the spill began. The agency wanted the stuff out of the creek, river, and shorelines by the September 27. Those deadlines would have been practical for a typical spill—but not for a tar sands oil spill. A half-decade later, some of the oil still remains—though, much of that has to do with Enbridge botching the cleanup effort (see onEarth’s three-part series, “The Whistleblower”).
Enbridge’s bungling began even before the spill. First, the company knew the pipeline was vulnerable by 2005, if not earlier. When the rupture finally came in July 2010, operators dismissed the alarms as a malfunction of the system for 17 hours before finally accepting that the pipeline had failed. Making things worse, six hours after Calhoun County residents were complaining to 911 about the smell of oil, Enbridge employees were still trying to fix the problem by pumping additional oil into the pipeline. In its review of the accident, the National Transportation Safety Board faulted Enbridge’s “culture of deviance” for what happened, pointing out that the response team in the first hours consisted of four local pipeline maintenance employees who were inadequately trained and made a series of bad decisions.
Not only did Enbridge fail to make the EPA’s initial cleanup deadline, it also blew through a series of fallback deadlines across more than four years. Not until late 2014 did the agency finally sign off on the remediation effort, handing the remaining responsibilities to the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality.
As the cleanup winds down, though, there is little cause for celebration. “The Kalamazoo River still isn’t clean,” says Swift. “The EPA reached a point where additional cleanup might do more harm than good. Much of the river is still contaminated.”
Some local residents accuse the company of overstating its progress. “In the process of beautifying everything and giving money to everybody and making everybody feel good about it, they’re not really telling people about the dangers still there in that water,” says Linda L. Cypret-Kilbourne of Michigan’s Potawatomi tribe.
It’s not clear when the river will go back to pre-spill quality. After conventional oil spills, crews eventually back off and allow microbes to break down the last bits of crude. That approach isn’t a good option in Kalamazoo. First, the area doesn’t have a large natural population of oil-eating microbes like the Gulf of Mexico has. In addition, tar sands crude contains very high levels of heavy metals, which don’t break down easily.
Let’s not forget how much it cost to (not completely) clean the Kalamazoo. The current price tag is $1.21 billion (and rising), making it the most expensive onshore oil spill in U.S. history.
“ The Kalamazoo River still isn’t clean. The EPA reached a point where additional cleanup might do more harm than good. Much of the river is still contaminated. ”
It’s tempting to dismiss the slow, botched, expensive, and still-unfinished cleanup as growing pains. Tar sands imports have risen significantly since 2010, as has public awareness of the difference between the Canadian crude and the conventional product. In the five years since the incident, we should have improved tar sands oil spill response. But we didn’t.
If another Enbridge spill were to happen tomorrow, the company might respond more quickly, but huge volumes of heavy tar sands crude would still pour out of the pipeline. David Holtz of the Michigan chapter of the Sierra Club told reporters that a rupture in Enbridge Line 5, another pipeline that runs through Michigan, would be disastrous.
“If they hit the shutoff valve immediately after a rupture, there would still be more than 650,000 gallons of oil spilled into the Great Lakes,” he said.
Cleaning it up would be as challenging today as it was five years ago. There have been no technological breakthroughs since 2010. The tar sands industry should accept a large portion of the blame for this stasis.
“The efforts to improve spill response have been caught up in a public relations war,” says Swift. “The tar sands industry wants you to believe that oil is oil, and that its product involves no heightened concerns. As a result, spill responders are working with largely the same tools today as in 2010.”
Tar sands pipelines—like the one operated by Enbridge, or TransCanada’s proposed Keystone XL pipeline—run for thousands of miles, crisscrossing the United States and Canada in elaborate networks. They entail certain risks, and those risks are not going away. We have to decide how to respond. If we accept them, we must work to minimize the consequences by developing the appropriate safety measures and technology. Or we can reject them by eliminating tar sands from our energy infrastructure. The one thing we must not do is to pretend they don’t exist. The Kalamazoo spill is a reminder. It won’t be the last.
Bakken-bearing pipeline meets stiff opposition in the Land of 10,000 Lakes
Daniel Cusick, EnergyWire, April 10, 2015
MINNEAPOLIS — A Canadian company proposes a multibillion-dollar oil pipeline through some of the Midwest’s prized lakes and wetlands, igniting a firestorm among environmentalists, tribes and anti-fossil fuel activists who say the proposal is built on hollow promises of economic development and dubious claims of environmental protection.
Sound familiar? It should. But the pipeline isn’t Keystone XL, and its developer is not TransCanada Corp., purveyor of the most polarizing energy project since the Yucca Mountain Nuclear Waste Repository.
It is called Sandpiper, and its developer is Enbridge Corp., another Calgary, Alberta-based conglomerate whose extensive oil and gas pipeline network plunges deep into the U.S. interior.
The $2.6 billion Sandpiper project, which would move 225,000 barrels of crude per day roughly 610 miles from the Bakken oil fields of North Dakota to an Enbridge hub in Superior, Wis., has been approved by North Dakota regulators. But it remains under administrative review in Minnesota, where developers are seeking a certificate of need to ship the oil and a route permit to build the pipeline across 300 miles of the state’s Lakes Belt.
An administrative law judge in St. Paul next week is expected to issue an advisory opinion that the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission will use to resolve some thorny questions around Sandpiper, including whether the line is necessary and what route it should follow to move Bakken crude across Minnesota to Wisconsin, where it would flow to other Enbridge lines serving refineries in Michigan, Illinois and Ohio.
Marathon’s president and CEO, Gary Heminger, has said the Sandpiper investment will give Marathon a 27 percent stake in Enbridge’s North Dakota pipeline system once the line is completed and provide “additional access to growing crude oil production from the Bakken Shale play and Canada, and direct participation in the transportation of these crudes into our markets.”
The opening of a new corridor through Minnesota will also help Enbridge manage aging infrastructure along its existing pipeline route through the Upper Great Lakes, known as the Lakehead System. Currently, six existing pipelines, some built as early as the 1950s, follow the Lakehead System route from a key Enbridge oil terminal in Clearbrook, in northwest Minnesota, to the cities of Bemidji and Grand Rapids before dipping south to Duluth and Superior.
Clearbrook is also the primary U.S. hub on Enbridge’s system for delivering Canadian tar sands oil from Alberta into the United States, and Enbridge has invested heavily in recent years to upgrade those lines, including adding new pump stations in Minnesota that will push up to 800,000 barrels per day of heavy Canadian crude to U.S. refineries.
Moreover, if Sandpiper is approved, Enbridge has said it will pursue another set of state permits to relocate one of its key Lakehead pipelines, known as Line 3, that was built in 1968 and is in need of retirement. Rather than rebuild Line 3 in its existing corridor, Enbridge has said it would prefer to relocate the line along the Sandpiper route at a cost of roughly $2.3 billion.
But environmental opposition, combined with lengthy regulatory proceedings, sagging oil prices and a troubling history of spills, including an 840,000-gallon contamination of Michigan’s Kalamazoo River in 2010, have created considerable hurdles for Enbridge as it tries to push through one of its most ambitious U.S. pipeline expansions in recent memory.
The stakes — for Enbridge, for its U.S. customers, and for residents and tribes in North Dakota and Minnesota — are high. If the Sandpiper line is built, the company says, millions of barrels of Bakken crude will be moved more safely and cheaply across northern Minnesota, while at the same time alleviating rail corridor congestion and reducing the risk of rail accidents like the Dec. 30, 2013, fiery collision between a derailed grain train and 108-car oil train near Casselton, N.D., resulting in 400,000 gallons of spilled crude and the evacuation of 1,400 residents.
Dealing with the ‘Keystone effect’
Currently, more than two-thirds of the North Dakota’s oil exports are shipped by rail using tanker cars, according to federal estimates, many of which lack the kind of safety features that have been proposed by the U.S. Department of Transportation and could become law later this year. More recent rail accidents, including oil train derailments in West Virginia and Illinois, have further pressured the oil and gas industry, railroads and government officials to find alternatives to shipping oil across long distances by rail and truck.
But if shipping crude by rail has come under tough scrutiny from the public and regulators, pipelines have fared little better, as evidenced by the industry’s track record of spills — estimated at 1,400 “significant incidents” since 1986 — and the deep political fissure over Keystone XL, which after years of languishing under a State Department review succumbed to a presidential veto in February after Republicans in Congress sought to approve the line legislatively.
The “Keystone effect,” as some have called it, goes beyond concerns about pipeline safety and routing to incorporate a broad suite of environmental issues, among them fossil fuel dependency and oil consumption’s contribution to greenhouse gases that drive climate change.
Al Monaco, Enbridge’s president and CEO, addressed some of those challenges in a speech to business executives in Minneapolis late last month.
“Solving infrastructure problems at its base is not rocket science,” he told the Minnesota-Canada Business Council, stressing the advanced technologies and materials deployed by industry to site new oil pipelines, inspect existing lines, and detect problems early and respond quickly.
The bigger challenge, Monaco said, stems from organized opposition to traditional energy resources and even some renewable resources such as wind turbines, and “the elevation of regional energy projects to a national policy debate.”
“This isn’t just short-term noise,” Monaco said. “Today, our regulators, our political leaders, our employees and the public, they expect more of energy companies. They want to know what we’re doing to continually improve, to get better.”
Working around the ‘Lakes Belt’
For critics like Kathryn Hoffman, an attorney with the Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy, “getting better” means several things, including acknowledging mistakes and correcting operational problems that cast doubt on Enbridge’s safety track record, including the record 2010 spill in Michigan, where cleanup remains a work in progress after $1 billion spent.
Hoffman and her client, the nonprofit group Friends of the Headwaters, also want Enbridge to explore alternatives to its preferred Sandpiper route, which crosses northern Minnesota’s “Lakes Belt,” a region dense in lakes, streams, wetlands and forest. To date, the company has refused to look at alternatives, saying its chosen Sandpiper route offers the best conditions, both environmentally and economically, for the line to make its way from an existing oil terminal in Clearbrook to its terminus at Duluth-Superior.
Hoffman, who has petitioned the Minnesota Court of Appeals to force a more detailed environmental review of Sandpiper than what is required by the PUC, said her client is not seeking to simply block the Sandpiper line from being constructed. Rather, she wants Enbridge to more fully examine the preferred route’s impacts to natural areas and weigh those findings against alternative routes that run along more developed corridors.
“Our position is that the proposed route is probably one of the worst locations in the state of Minnesota to run a pipeline,” she said.
Similar concerns were raised by Minnesota’s two environmental agencies — the Department of Natural Resources and the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency — prompting the PUC last September to take an unprecedented step of asking for more information on alternative routes.
The Minnesota Department of Commerce provided a detailed report on six alternatives last December, but Enbridge maintains that none is viable because all are longer, are more expensive to build and do not pass through its terminal at Clearbrook, a critical element of the project.
“The fundamentals behind the project call for leveraging the existing infrastructure that’s already in place,” Paul Eberth, Enbridge’s Wisconsin-based Sandpiper project manager, said in a telephone interview. “By going to Clearbrook and then to Superior, we can make connections to customers without having to build a new line all the way down to the southern part of the state,” as most of the alternatives propose.
‘Oil companies are asking too much of our state’
But opponents of Sandpiper in its current configuration say southern Minnesota, where farming and urbanization have already altered much of the natural landscape, is exactly where new oil pipelines belong.
Among those pushing for a re-route are members of the state’s 40,000-person Ojibwe tribe, also known as the Chippewa or Anishinaabe, whose leaders maintain that the Sandpiper project threatens to foul northern Minnesota’s pristine waters with oil and disrupt traditional activities such as wild rice harvesting that are central to Native American life in the Great Lakes region.
Frank Bibeau, an attorney and member of the White Earth Nation of Ojibwe, whose reservation extends across three northern Minnesota counties, said in an interview that Enbridge has failed to examine such impacts in its Sandpiper routing decision. Moreover, the company continues to maintain that the pipeline does not physically cross tribal lands and therefore does not violate the tribe’s rights.
“We beg to differ with them on that point, and strongly,” said Bibeau, who maintains that the tribe’s treaty rights extend beyond reservation boundaries when dealing with traditional activities like wild rice harvesting.
Honor the Earth, a national activist group led by White Earth member Winona LaDuke, the former Green Party vice presidential candidate, has also pressed state officials, including Gov. Mark Dayton (D), to force a reconsideration of Sandpiper’s current route and issue a moratorium on any new pipeline development in the state’s lakes region.
“Oil companies are asking too much of our state,” LaDuke wrote in a letter to the governor. “While we remain a fossil fuel economy at present, sending one new pipeline … across the beautiful North Country is wrong and is not a good move for Minnesota.”
The group has taken its message public, too, with colorful roadside billboards and horseback rallies in hamlets like Backus, Minn., where the pipeline is proposed to cross an arterial highway just south of the Corner Store Restaurant & Gun Shop, a local gathering spot.
On a recent afternoon, Dave Sheley, the Corner Store’s owner and proprietor for 18 years, said the Sandpiper project has been a regular topic of conversation, both pro and con, among patrons of his cafe.
He described Backus and surrounding Pine County as “a poor community in general with a rich sub-community of cabin owners,” many of whom trek north on weekends from the Twin Cities to fish, swim, boat, bicycle or hunt in the region that otherwise has little happening economically.
While some are encouraged by Enbridge’s promise of 1,500 construction jobs and an estimated $25 million in new annual tax revenue, others say such benefits are countered by the intrusion of a major oil pipeline and the long-term risk of an accident or spill.
Sheley said he has seen a smattering of new business from surveyors and consultants working along the corridor route, which parallels an electricity transmission line. But he also knows that any surge in business during the line’s construction would be temporary, and the greatest economic benefit will go to landowners who have cut deals with Enbridge to route the pipeline across their property.
“I don’t own any land where they want to build, so I don’t have skin in the game,” he said. “For the most part, I’d say those people tend to be the most positive about it. But I can also see why the cabin owners and naturalist groups are concerned. A spill would be a big bummer if it happened.”